Saturday 15 October 2016

Brent Council set to increase Council Tax by 3.99%, make cuts and increase charges

Brent Council issued the following press release yesterday on its budget proposals. I drew attention recently to Camden's revision of its Council Tax Support Scheme in the light of Council Tax increases. There are, as far as I can see, no proposals for a review of Brent's scheme. LINK


Plan to protect local services by raising income set to be discussed
14 October 2016
Protecting local services is the top priority for Brent, the council leader has said, as a plan to get residents' views on a draft set of budget proposals for the next two years is set to be discussed.

Brent Council's Cabinet will meet on Monday 24 October to consider a paper which includes a proposal to protect local services by increasing council tax by 3.99 per cent - or 85p a week for an average Band D household.

The report sets out how councils are still in an era of austerity and are facing further cuts in Government funding despite growing demand for local services from an increasing and ageing population. The paper also includes some savings proposals although these are relatively small compared to recent council budgets.

Last year was the first year council tax had risen in Brent for six years after successive freezes despite Government funding being slashed by £117million since 2010.

Cllr Muhammed Butt, Leader of Brent Council, said:

"Imagine your household bills went up every year, but your salary kept being cut. You would have to make some tough choices and find new ways to make your money go further.

"That's what this council has been doing in finding new, more efficient ways to maintain and improve the services that we all need, but it has also meant making some very difficult decisions.

"We know how important our local services are to the people of Brent which is why, rather than cutting back on those vital services, the option of raising income through a small council tax increase to protect these services is being considered.

"The choice we face in Brent is this: will we pay a bit extra each month to keep our services available to those who need them, or will we let the Government's cuts to our budget further limit the services we can provide?"

In addition to the proposal on council tax, the paper includes proposals to:

·       Help residents with low-level nursing care needs to live independently, which will improve their quality of life and save £300,000
·       Negotiate a £500,000 reduction in spending on contracts with mental health service providers
·       Outsourcing the management of two day care centres in the borough to save £300,000
·       Negotiate a £900,000 saving in the public realm contract with Veolia
·       Charging for a next-day and 'pick your day' bulky waste collection service, generating £250,000 each year
·       Consult on saving £100,000 in the Regulatory Services team through a reorganisation
·       Participation in the London wide sexual health transformation programme to achieve better services while saving £600,000 over the next two years
·       Consultation on plans for differential parking charges to help manage pressure for spaces in high demand areas - £1million
·       Dim street lights where appropriate which would save £100,000 and benefit the environment

Cllr Butt added:

"As a Cabinet, we will discuss the draft proposals set out in the report at our next meeting and, if approved, will then put them to residents to have their say in a detailed budget consultation."

The budget consultation is set to run from November to December with a series of public meetings arranged for January. A final decision on the budget will be taken by Full Council in February 2017.

View the full Cabinet report here.
There is little information on any debate within the Labour Group or the Brent Labour Party as whole over these proposals although Cllr Michael Pavey in his letter resigning from the Cabinet LINK said, 
'I think it is clear that the Leader and myself have developed differing views regarding how Brent Council can best serve its residents at a time of brutal Tory cuts.'
Pavey may have fought against cuts in his own brief, Stronger Communities, or perhaps he had an alternative strategy which was defeated. 

As usual the devil will be in the detail and one has to look beyond the phraseology of the bullet points to see what they really mean. Some appear to be deliberately vague.

Taking the first proposal on helping people with 'low-level nursing care need to live independently' , the report  acknowledges that this 'help' may not be welcome - but it delivers 'savings' through what will be a reduced service:
Proposal to move lowest need (c.20%) of clients currently in nursing care to Supported Living which would deliver a £0.3m saving. This is based on an analysis of nursing home placements, which suggest there are a number of placements at the simpler end. 

How would this affect users of this service? 

Clients would need to agree to the move and some may find moving traumatic. Families and carers may also be averse to disrupting stable placements. Some users may prefer a less institutional environment and regain independence and skills lost through being in nursing care.
Brent's poor provision of mental health services came under sharp criticism at the recent 'Extremism' debate so the £0.5m cut in spending on contracts will need close scrutiny:

£0.5m ('savings') achieved through: 

 enabling a more effective recovery pathway – better access to housing and
employment will accelerate step down to general needs housing 

Supported by ongoing negotiations with providers to manage costs and focus
on the right support. 

How would this affect users of this service

This would support the delivery of the current objectives of the service, supporting people to move towards independence, and further efficiencies would be achieved through negotiations, which would not mean a change in service. 
The key here is 'negotiation with providers' which often means reducing the payment to providers affecting the pay and working conditions of those working for them and perhaps contradicting the Council's commitment to the London living wage.

Despite Jeremy Corbyn's remarks on Council 'in-sourcing' LINK,  Brent may decide to  outsource the management of the John Billam and New Millennium day care centres. There is little detail in the proposals but they expect to generate income by opening up the use of the buildings to outside groups.

The report notes:
Key consultations

Extensive consultation required with users and carers in both day centres would be required however the service developed, and with Unions, staff and with potential providers 

Key risks and mitigations 

Risk that users and carers will oppose the changes to the service – mitigated through extensive and ongoing communication and engagement

If the first risk becomes an issue, significant risk of adverse publicity and public protest – mitigated through extensive and ongoing communication and engagement Risk that the council cannot generate the additional income and efficiencies – mitigated through financial modelling and change management

Risk that we will need to consider outsourcing as the way to drive the change.
The almost £1m efficiency savings over two years on the Public Realm contract with Veolia which covers street cleaning, waste collection, waste recycling, parks maintenance and much more are in a proposal so vague as to be virtually meaningless:
This proposal generates £900k from operational efficiencies within the Public Realm Contract. These will rationalise operational arrangements so they better manage and properly resolve hot spots and other persistent problems. 

How would this affect users of this service? 

Service users may see revised working practices and operational schedules.
This is coupled with a proposal to raise £0.25m by charging for bulky waste collections.  Whether to charfe  for bulky waste collections has been an ongoing debate between Labour and the Lib Dems. The introduction of a charge for next day or pick your day collections follows widespread complaints about the length of time it takes Veolia to pick up bulky waste under the present free system LINK.  It is unlikely that residents expected charges to be introduced as a result of their complaints and a two tier system may well result in longer delays for the free service and increased fly-tipping.

Participation in the London wide sexual health programme and consequent savings of £0.6m are based on moving away from face-to-face consultations with health professionals to a web-based service:
Analysis of activity in current sexual health services and a waiting room survey indicates that not all current attendances at GUM clinics need that specialist service. Brent is participating in a London wide procurement of a new ‘front door’ to sexual health services. The front door into services will be web based, a single platform providing patients with information about sexual health, on line triage, signposting to the most appropriate service for their needs and the ability to order self-sampling tests.
 Tellingly one of the risk factors identified for this saving is:
  • a failure to change patient and / or clinician behaviour and so not achieve the diversion of activity on which savings are based 
Given the nature of the Opposition on Brent Council the proposal on parking charges is likely to be the most controversial, but again it is pretty vague:
This is an exercise to account for the parking pressures that are expected to arise from an increase in the borough’s population. Regeneration and increased development may result in additional cars and increased parking pressures. This creates the need to provide parking restrictions that meet current and future demand, with the revenue paying for the service and any additional revenue being reinvested in the service. This exercise will consider residential parking permits and some car parking tariffs but will not include a review of visitor parking charges.
With the exception of some fairly minor proposals on Regeneration which is Cllr Mashari's remit, all the above proposals either come under Cllr Hirani (Adult Social Care) or Cllr Southwood (Environment). There are none under Cllr Pavey's Stronger Communities remit. Perhaps he was not so keen to see services reduced.

Now that Cllr Butt has taken over that brief, pending a 'review' LINK, is there a possibilty that further proposals will be tabled?


Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group said...

Yes, Camden Council's consultation on restoring 100% Council Tax support to those too poor to pay Council Tax is deadlined for Friday 21 October.

Meanwhile, 'Camden Benefits Service' [sic] standard text in 'form letters' to Housing Benefit claimants has come under fire. Kate Belgrave: Authorities bully benefit claimants because they can

It would be interesting to see what kind of standard text Brent Council's equivalent has.

Martin Francis said...

Thanks KWUG. I have Tweeted Kate's blog. Meanwhile I would be interested to hear from Brent residents about any letters they have received from the Council, DWP etc with a similar bullying tone.

Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group said...

Martin, you wrote, "Meanwhile I would be interested to hear from Brent residents about any letters they have received from the Council, DWP etc with a similar bullying tone."

It strikes me that the letters as such received by Brent residents are confidential to the recipients, while the standard texts of LB Brent letters should be available from Brent Council upon enquiry by Brent Council Tax payers. The impact statements would be more reliably obtained from the recipients than from a key decision makers who never seem to learn from the history of their outcomes.

At the same time, I am reminded that after the Tianment Square student demonstrations, families of the protesters executed were reportedly billed for the execution bullets in exchange for the bodies. Whether that story was founded on propaganda or fact is open to speculation.

What is fact however is that Brent Council has summonsed thousands of residents to Court over non-payment of Council Tax. The evidence: Brent & Kilburn Times reports:
Vulnerable residents in Brent left with £250k court bill over Council Tax arrears
Four per cent of Brent residents summoned to court over Council Tax arrears showed up.

Who pays for such fallout from Brent Council policy? Camden Council's decision to consult on restoring 100% Council Tax Reduction on its most economically vulnerable residents is arguably based more on the failure of its own attempts to enforce the unenforceable.

It is widely reported that moving home is one of the most stressful experiences individuals are likely to encounter in their life-times. What about Council Tax-arrears-related eviction?

Brent is consulting on whether to take bailiff services out of private company hands. Whether the bailiff 'service' is 'in house' or 'outsourced', it is arguably adding insult to injury in enforcing unjust policies.

Back to the topic of standard text in official letters, in an article entitled 'A Tale of Two Enforcements' Taxpayers Against Poverty founder Revd Paul Nicolson cites an 'outsourced' bailiff's letter received by a 'Mr Watson', a man with learning difficulties. The standard letter demanded money with menaces, and the semi-literate recipient hanged himself.

Who pays for 'Weapons of Mass Destruction' 'form letters'? And whether Brent's 'bailiff service' remains 'outsourced' or goes 'in house', who will authorise the texts of the standard letters sent out on the Council's behalf, and who will pay for them and how? Some pay with money, others with the direct stress of being ordered to do what they cannot do, especially when services for vulnerable people such as Brent Mencap have been savaged.

Those with consciences will also surely pay with 'vicarious traumatisation' compounded by 'blood on my hands' sense of responsibility.

Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group said...

At yesterday's Kilburn Unemployed Workers Group business meeting, mention of Brent Council 'services' came up in the context of discussion items about 'public consultations'. How can a 'public consultation' that is exclusively online as many 'public consultations' are these days, when public access to the means of participating has been stripped from the poorer members of the public who don't have computing equipment? Would not such consultations be skewed in favour of the 'haves'?

Anonymous said...

Martin, I am a Brent residentI recieved an intimidating letter from DWP over my entitlement to housing benefit. I had to attend a interview and was told it was a routine review, during this 'routine review' I was insensitively questioned in depth about my relationship with my children's father (to whom I fled domestic violence from) and when reduced to tears and even though I made it clear it was so severe police, social services and Advance (domestic violence charity) were previously involved she still questioned and questioned and that was all she asked about and was then told that would be it.. for now. Proof of income, my working hours, bank statements were not even asked for.
I have also had problems with Brent council over council tax, last year I missd one of my monthly installements, yes it was my fault, when I contacted Brent I was told it had been referred to Equita enforcement officers.
Equita added £300 onto my £540 bill, I had to pay £280 back each month. I tried to explain I was a single parent but they didn't care.
Those were the toughest months. I cried myself to sleep, working full time, looking after my kids and scrapping each penny was a nighmare.
My kids were what got me through it.
Yet Cllr Butt says he has "no time" for the vulnerable like myself who need support